Background and Early Years
Alice Malsenior Walker was born February 9, 1944, and is an American author and feminist. She received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983 for one of her critically acclaimed novel, The Color Purple. Walker was born in Eatonton, Ga., and was the eighth child of sharecroppers. As well as being Black, her family has Cherokee, Scottish and Irish lineage. Although she grew up in Georgia, she has stated that she often felt displaced there.
In her book, Alice Walker: A Life, author Evelyn C. White talks about an incident when Walker, who was eight years old at the time, was injured when her brother accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun. She became blinded in one eye as a result. In the book, White suggests this event had a large impact on Walker, especially when a White doctor in town swindled her parents out of the $250 they paid to treat her injury. Walker refers to this incident in her book, Warrior Marks, a chronicle of female genital mutilation in Africa, and uses it to illustrate the sacrificial marks women bear that allow them to be "warriors" against female suppression.
After high school, in 1961, Walker went to Spellman College in Atlanta on a full scholarship and later transferred to Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y. She graduated in 1965. Walker became interested in the Civil Rights Movement in part due to the influence of activist Howard Zinn, who was one of her professors at Spelman College. Continuing the activism that she participated in during her college years, Walker returned to the South where she became involved with voter registration drives, campaigns for welfare rights and children's programs in Mississippi.
In 1965, Walker met and later married Mel Leventhal, a Jewish civil rights lawyer. They became the first legally married interracial couple in Mississippi. This brought them a steady stream of harassment and even death threats from the Ku Klux Klan. The couple had a daughter, Rebecca, in 1969, but divorced eight years later.
Walker's first book of poetry was written while she was still attending Sarah Lawrence, and she took a brief sabbatical from writing when she was in Mississippi working in the Civil Rights Movement. Walker resumed her writing career when she joined Ms. Magazine as an editor before moving to northern California in the late 1970s. An article she published in 1975 was largely responsible for the renewal of interest in the work of Zora Neale Hurston, a Black author and social pioneer, who was a large source of inspiration for Walker. In 1973, Walker and fellow Hurston scholar, Charlotte D. Hunt, discovered Hurston's unmarked grave in Ft. Pierce, Fl. Both women paid for a modest headstone for the gravesite.
In addition to her collected short stories and poetry, Walker's first work of fiction, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, was published in 1970. In 1976, Walker's second novel, Meridian, was published. The novel dealt with activist workers in the South during the Civil Rights Movement, and closely paralleled some of Walker's own experiences.
Thinking in Color
In 1982, Walker published what has become her best-known work to date, the novel, The Color Purple. It is story of a young Black woman fighting her way through not only racist White culture, but patriarchal culture. It was a resounding commercial success. The book became a best-seller and was subsequently adapted into a critically acclaimed 1985 movie as well as a 2005 Broadway musical play.
Walker wrote several other novels, including The Temple of My Familiar and Possessing The Secret of Joy, which featured several characters and descendants of characters from The Color Purple. She has produced a number of collections of short stories, poetry and other published work as well.
Her works typically focus on the struggles of Blacks, particularly Black women, and their fight against a racist, s*xist and violent society. Her writings also focus on the role of women of color in culture and history. Walker is a respected figure in the liberal political community for her support of unconventional and unpopular views as a matter of principle. Additionally, Walker has published several short stories, including the 1973, "Everyday Use: For Your Grandmama." This essay contains Walker's typical subjects of feminism and racism against Black people.
Rebecca, her daughter, is also an author and in 2000 she published a memoir entitled, Black White and Jewish chronicling her parents' relationship and how it affected her childhood.
Walker had a love affair with singer-songwriter Tracy Chapman, and she discussed it in a December 2006 interview with The Guardian, explaining why they did not go public with their relationship. Morrison said, "[the relationship] was delicious and lovely and wonderful and I totally enjoyed it and I was completely in love with her but it was not anybody's business but ours."
Existing criticism of Walker's work has centered largely on the depiction of Black men, in particular relating to the novel, The Color Purple. When The Color Purple was published, there was some criticism of the portrayal of male characters in the book. The main concern of much of the criticism was that the book appeared to depict the male characters as either mean and abusive or as buffoons. This criticism intensified when the film was released, as the narrative of the film cut a significant portion of the eventual resolution and reconciliation between the main characters Albert and Celie.
In the updated 1995 introduction to his novel, Oxherding Tale, Charles Johnson criticized the book by saying, "I leave it to readers to decide which book pushes harder at the boundaries of convention, and inhabits most confidently the space where fiction and philosophy meet." The shock waves of his comments were felt in academia, where Johnson broke the unspoken taboo against criticizing a fellow person of color.
Walker addressed some of these criticisms in The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult in 1996. The book was a semi-autobiography discussing specific events in Walker's life, as well as the perspective of experiencing reaction to The Color Purple twice, once as a book and then as the movie was made. The book also chronicled her struggle with Lyme disease.
Awards and Honors:
- In 1983, The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, making Walker the first African-American woman to win, as well as the National Book Award.
She has also received a number of other awards for her body of work, including:
The Lillian Smith Award from the National Endowment for the Arts
The Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts & Letters
The Radcliffe Institute Fellowship, the Merrill Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship
The Front Page Award for Best Magazine Criticism from the Newswoman's Club of New York
Novels and short story collections
The Third Life of Grange Copeland (1970)
Everyday Use (1973)
In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973)
Meridian (novel) (1976)
The Color Purple (1982)
You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down: Stories (1982)
Beauty: When the Other Dancer Is the Self (1983)
To Hell With Dying (1988)
The Temple of My Familiar (1989)
Finding the Green Stone (1991)
Possessing the Secret of Joy (1992)
The Complete Stories (1994)
By The Light of My Father's Smile (1998)
The Way Forward Is with a Broken Heart (2000)
Now Is The Time to Open Your Heart (2005)
Revolutionary Petunias & Other Poems (1973)
Good Night, Willie Lee, I'll See You in the Morning (1979)
Horses Make a Landscape Look More Beautiful (1985)
Her Blue Body Everything We Know: Earthling Poems (1991)
Absolute Trust in the Goodness of the Earth (2003)
A Poem Traveled Down My Arm: Poems And Drawings (2003)
Collected Poems (2005)
In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983)
Living by the Word (1988)
Warrior Marks (1993)
The Same River Twice: Honoring the Difficult (1996)
Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer's Activism (1997)
Go Girl!: The Black Woman's Book of Travel and Adventure (1997)
Pema Chodron and Alice Walker in Conversation (1999)
Sent By Earth: A Message from the Grandmother Spirit After the Bombing of the World Trade Center and Pentagon (2001)
We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For (2006)
Mississippi Winter IV
Works about Alice Walker
Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White, Norton, 2004
Sources: Campbell, Duncan. "A long walk to freedom," The Observer, February 25, 2001; Bates, Gerri, Alice Walker: A Critical Companion; White, Evelyn C. "Alice Walker: On Finding Your Bliss; Interview by Evelyn C. White," Ms. Magazine, September/October 1999; "Inner Light in a Time of Darkness: A Conversation with Author and Poet Alice Walker," Democracy Now!, November 17th, 2006; Walker, Alice, "Anything We Love Can Be Saved: A Writer's Activism," The Women's Press Ltd, 1997; Walker, Alice. "Everyday Use," Perrine's Literature: Structure, Sound, and Sense. Comp. Thomas R. Arp. New York: Harcourt Brace College, 1994. 90-97; Teagarden, Rebecca. "Reggie Watts", The Seattle Times, December 19, 2004. "No Retreat," The Guardian, December 15, 2006.
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